Who will provide the next opposition?
A while ago whilst feeling frustrated watching a usually unedifying episode of Question Time I tweeted a poll asking:
Now a few self-selected votes is about as far from a representative sample as you can get and the response possibly indicates that SNP supporters watching Question Time are more likely to click on polls! However the question is a worrying one. Cameron and Osborne’s legacy could be very bad for any diversity within the UK political system.
I struggle to understand how Labour has made itself so unelectable particularly when facing this Conservative government. Individual steps to their current state can be understood, but it is the combination of steps and the lack of coherence that defies explanation. There is something structurally wrong – probably in the balance of power between the parliamentary party, the trade unions, the membership of the party and the rather amorphous “membership of the Labour movement”.
I suspect that they have to lose a few more elections before they will be willing to address the issue. I worry that they may then adopt another Blair-like “fix”, that rides on the voters’ dislike of out-of-touch too-long-in-office Conservative Governments combined with a desperation for power without addressing the underlying internal party problems. Perhaps this time Labour’s base is so damaged (by the party’s current confused stance, by the Conservative redrawing of the constituency boundaries, and a near catastrophic collapse in Scotland) that they will have to think more radically.
I think it is now recognised that in taking the Liberals into coalition, the Conservatives effectively destroyed them – probably for a generation. If you claim that you wish to “form a government”, but you campaign for “protest votes”, you will find that the reality of power is hard. You lose your “protest vote” support and in the sort of adversarial political environment that is Westminster you prove yourself to be unworthy of government (no matter how competent individual ministers may have been).
In coalitions, the minority party often gets blamed for the failures whilst the majority party takes the glory for the successes. Cameron and Osborne, despite their shortcomings elsewhere, played the Liberals with brutal finesse. At best the Liberals were naive and they will take a considerable time to restore their reputation – despite the single glimmer of light that Brexit may offer.
UKIP is a destructive party – its main reason for existence was played as a negative, so it is hardly surprising that once their main aim is achieved they should turn their destructive instincts on themselves.
They have however tapped into something in the English electorate that has not been previously represented. For some it is the attraction of a hard-nosed simplistic approach to solving the nation’s problems and for others it is a promise to represent those outside the marginals who feel they have been ignored for too long.
Whether they can turn this dissatisfaction into votes in sufficient volume in the right places to gain seats under First Past the Post is a challenge. However it would be foolish for the old elitist parties to view the lack of parliamentary representation as “proof” that that their supporters can be ignored. Arguably it is that sort of attitude that has lead to the EU referendum and the toxic aftermath where any opposition is now deemed “undemocratic” and against “the will of the people”.
The Scottish National Party
Suggesting in my poll that the SNP might stand across the UK is not something that I think the SNP are seriously considering – there is an inherent contradiction between standing in a constituency in say the English Midlands and having as your main objective not being in the same country as your constituents!
The SNP in Westminster has proved to be relative coherent and effective and in practice lead the Non-Labour opposition. Given that the Labour opposition is finding it hard to gain traction, the SNP is often “the opposition”.
Of course the SNP intend to hold another independence referendum in 2019, so it is possible that by 2020 they will not be sitting in the Westminster Parliament!
The Brexit Effect
If Scotland gains independence on the back of a “pluralist EU or conservative UK” campaign (not necessarily an easy call) we will probably see a smaller Labour parliamentary group forming an even less effective opposition to an even more rampant Conservative Party.
By the next election the UK will have left the EU (or be in transition) and the consequences (for good or ill) will not yet be fully apparent. Provided the Conservatives can keep up the “opposition is undemocratic” line there is no reason why they should not coast relatively unchallenged back into Government after the 2020 election.
It is difficult for any party (at least outside Scotland and Northern Ireland) to put forward either an “anti-Brexit” line or a manifesto where Brexit is not the most important issue. “Policy” therefore may not be the most important consideration to voters when making their choice. The choice may fall back on voter’s dislike of voting for parties that are perceived to be “divided”. This could be bad news for Labour and possibly for UKIP (unless they are seen as the “less divided” non-Conservative choice).
The wild-card (in England) is the Liberals. Under First Past the Post, 48% support is enough to gain a very substantial majority. Whilst the Liberals have been unapologetic in their opposition to Brexit, can they convince those horrified by the direction of Brexit to support them? Or will there be a feeling that the deed has been done and there is no longer any point in resisting the inevitable recasting of the country as a buccaneering right wing quasi-imperialist tax-haven?